When NovoGradac founded Chestnut Charlie's, in 1995, he wasn't sure that the orchard would make it. But his trees survived a few dicey years and a couple of damaging freezes, and the farm has become successful. Harvest now involves NovoGradac, Milks, and a small army of local paid pickers collecting fallen chestnuts from September through mid - October. Even after this summer's drought, NovoGradac says, this year's crop turned out "fair." At press time, Chestnut Charlie's had sold through its shipments to BadSeed Market. (See chestnutcharlie.com for availability at area KC and Lawrence stores.)
The Pitch: How did you decide to grow chestnuts?
NovoGradac: When I started reading about chestnuts, I learned the American chestnut was a dominant tree in eastern North America. And it was subject to blight, which effectively wiped it out. I was attracted by a nursery that claimed to have a chestnut hybrid that was Chinese-American that would grow to be a medium-sized tree, between the giant American chestnut tree and the orchard Chinese chestnut tree. It would essentially grow like the equivalent of the walnut tree.
Nobody was doing it, and the demand for domestically grown chestnuts exceeded the supply of chestnuts. We consume a lot fewer chestnuts per capita than China or European countries might, but we still are importing chestnuts.
You grew up on a farm?
My dad had a farm in Basehor. He bought that in 1968 or so and planted Christmas trees. He had a lot of Christmas trees he sold as nursery stock. But I always felt that organic was the way to go. I'm a child of the '60s. If I was going to do anything at all, it was going to be organic. The concern for my own health, exposure to chemicals that they say are safe but 20 years down the road say aren't safe - that was No. 1. But No. 2, I don't want to poison anybody's water. I want it to be sustainable.
Did you study agriculture?
I wanted to be a writer. I was an English and psych major. What are you going to do with that? I went on to law school. I had nothing better to do.
I wanted to be a general practitioner. I went to Micronesia. I was looking for work and I found out I didn't have enough experience to qualify for a position that I saw advertised. But I found out I could be a Peace Corps volunteer.That was kind of like an apprenticeship. There was not that much guidance, but enough to get me into the community. And then, after Peace Corps, I partnered with another fellow and Peace Corps volunteer who'd been there years before and had already established a practice. That was my career and life for 17 years.
My parents suffered strokes. They were moved off the farm, and my brother was taking care of them, and then my brother died suddenly of a heart attack. So I had to come back to the States. My father had always planted trees and loved walnut trees and Christmas trees. So I started the chestnut crop to see if they would grow.
What was your backup plan if Lawrence couldn't sustain chestnut farming?
While the trees were little, I planted some Christmas trees so that we would have something to watch. I didn't know whether the soil was right. It was marginal, from what I had read. I didn't know what the trees would do given this situation. It was not wholesale successful, and we had a couple of bad winters and untimely freezes that killed back some trees that have since recovered.
We have done some grafting and found some things that might work and some things that do work - the alternative being bulldoze it and put it back into corn. That alternative would be unthinkable now. The last two years have been pretty good, and we've been able to consistently put together a package for some of the natural-food stores and chains.
Who orders chestnuts?
People who grew up in Europe and immigrated here or who grew up in Asian countries - Korea, China, Japan. They really love chestnuts and are very, very pleased to find chestnuts in the area. At the farmers market, we might find nine out of 10 people have never had a chestnut before, and nine out of 10 of the ones who try it for the first time are indifferent to it. But I got a hug and a kiss from a lady who grew up in Iran who was just so happy to find chestnuts because they are so rare.